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52: TRAVELS/TRANSLATIONS: BILL PORTER/RED PINE

May 24, 2014

#52:  TRAVELS/TRANSLATIONS:  BILL PORTER/RED PINE.  Of the contemporary translators of Asian literature, Bill Porter is noticeably the most geographically oriented.  “Most people who translate don’t have a clue to where things happen,” he said once in an interview.  “They don’t really have an awareness of the landscape.”  Certainly it is Porter’s decades-long residence in Taiwan and his wanderings in China that’s given his work this warm particularity; Arthur Waley, in contrast, the great early hero of Oriental translation, never set foot in Asia.  Birthplaces, cities and counties, geomantic placement, burial sites:  his work is musical with the place-names of China.  It seems to have brought his mind into easy consonance with the poems and Buddhist texts he has been drawn to translate, and to escape the pomposity and jargon so common in academic prose.  His relation to the texts is personal; when he says of the Platform Sutra, “You can walk a million miles and never make a better friend,” we believe him.

     Porter’s work is framed by a couple of travel books, published under his own name:  Road to Heaven (Mercury House, 1993), about his forays into the Chungnan Mountains to seek out the surviving practicioners of China’s tradition of religious hermitage, and Zen Baggage (Shoemaker and Heard, 2009), about his visits to the monasteries of the early masters of Ch’an/Zen, and the resurgence of religious activity and interest in China. They’re terrific books, endlessly rereadable, and easy entryways into Porter’s work.

     His translations, published under the name of Red Pine, divvy up between poetry and Buddhist and Taoist texts.  Of the former, there are P'u Ming's Oxherding Pictures and Verses  (Empty Bowl, 2015)), a classic Zen work; Guide to Capturing a Plum Blossom, by Sung Po-Jen (Mercury House, 1988), the world’s first printed art book; The Zen Works of Stonehouse (Counterpoint, 2009), the poems, gathas and dharma talks of a fourteenth-century monk; an anthology of Buddhist monk-poets co-edited with Mike Connor, The Clouds Should Know Me By Now (Wisdom Publications, 2005), six poets and six translators; and Poems of The Masters (Copper Canyon, 2003), a translation of the Chienchiashih, a thirteenth-century anthology that for many hundred years was a part of a Chinese child’s education, a sort of Chinese version of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury.  My own favorite is The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain, a complete translation of the T’ang Dynasty hermit monk Han-shan.  A whole legendary existence has grown up around Han-shan, and in the revised and expanded edition published by Copper Canyon Press in 2003, he has included the poems of Shih-te and Feng-kan, the other two denizens of the Han-shan mythos.  In all of these the translations are graceful and expressive, and the accompanying paragraphs of comment and exegesis are little masterpieces of their kind—quick bright backgrounds for the poems to figure in.  

      On the scriptural side:  The Zen Teachings of Bodhidharma (North Point, 1987) is a collection of the first patriarch of Zen; Lao Tzu's Taoteching (Copper Canyon, 2009) is a version of one of the main texts of Taoism—a “long poem in praise of something we cannot name, much less imagine”—and includes some wonderfully illuminating excerpts from over a dozen of the many classic commentaries on the text.  To me the great centerpiece of Red Pine’s work is a trilogy of Mahayana Buddhist texts, beautifully translated with extensive annotation and commentary both from Pine and from the long commentarial tradition of the past:  The Diamond Sutra (Counterpoint, 2001), The Heart Sutra: The Womb of Buddhas (Shoemaker and Heard, 2004) and The Platform Sutra: The Zen Teaching of Hui-neng (Shoemaker and Heard, 2006).  In all of Pine’s books there is the full equipment of scholarship—Chinese texts, glossaries, commentary, textual notes and, of course, maps—but with these three especially the combined heft of Pine’s intelligence, literary skill and depth of insight and commitment to the text renders something extraordinary and precious.  What he says of Hui-neng—that you will never make a better friend—we come to believe of all these books.

      P.S. 2012.  Porter’s most recently published books are In Such Hard Times: The Poetry of Wei Ying-wu (Copper Canyon, 2009) and a new translation and annotation of The Lankavatara Sutra (Counterpoint, 2012).  In In Such Hard Times, Porter does what most translators dream of:  he restores to sight an indisputably first-rank poet who has somehow fallen through the historic cracks.  The combat zone in Wei Ying-wu’s poetry is at once thoroughly Chinese and universal:  the Confucian impulse to public service versus the Taoist/Buddhist impulse to introspection: the office versus the retreat, sociability versus solitude.  Wei lived through one of the tumultuous events of Chinese history, the fall of Hsuan-tsung and the An Lu-shan Rebellion, and his life as a minor official was in a time of disorder and upheaval.  The call to conscientious public service must have been overwhelming, but this was also a glory period in the long Chinese tradition of monastic reclusion, and the tension between the two is the great source of Wei’s poetry.  Wei’s poems are written to cousins and friends who are off in the distance of postings, promotions, exile or military service, or to the monks and priests he admired and befriended, out of sight in their mountain huts.  These themes, so large a part of Chinese poetry, might threaten to seem conventional, and the simplicity and quietude of Wei’s style allowed his work to drop out of favor.   But the poems are full of conviction and emotion, of moods superbly conveyed, and, in Porter’s renderings, very live indeed.

     With The Lankavatara Sutra, he gives us the first new rendering in eighty years of one of the central scriptures of Yogacara Buddhism and one of the originating texts of Zen.  Make no mistake, it’s challenging and difficult stuff—like throwing a series of shrapnel grenades at your most basic assumptions about existence.  As with so much Indian literature, it never says once what it can say a dozen times over, with variations; but climbing over, under, through and past the obstacle courses of assertions, negations, negations negated and quadruple knots of logic, what can float into sight is the particular and luminous province of the Buddhist scriptures:  a clearing in the woods for the bared sight (and insight) of wisdom.  Porter gives the Sutra a careful and graceful rendering, with ample and helpful annotation. 

      P.P.S. 2016:  In the early nineties, Porter pieced together a living by traveling in China and doing broadcasts about his travels for Hong Kong radio.  Over the last few years, as he has headed for retirement, he’s published four books based on those travels:  Yellow River Odyssey (Chin Music Press, 2014), South of the Clouds: Travels in Southwest China (Counterpoint, 2015), The Silk Road: Taking the Bus to Pakistan (Counterpoint, 2016) and South of the  Yangtze: Travels Through the Heart of China (Counterpoint, 2016).  Travel writing can fail and fall between two rather terrible stools:  either boring and impersonal regurgitation of historical fact, or the me-me-me note of people telling you their interior adventures and thereby blotting out the landscape (try finding a memoir of the Compostella route that escapes these dangers).  Porter always knows enough of where he is to give us our historical bearings, but he is also always discovering local corners he didn’t expect to find.  There are stories throughout of lovely hospitalities (and a few official idiocies); the tone is mellow and anecdotal, but there’s solid ground beneath them.  The effect of them is simple:  if you haven’t been to China, you’ll want to go; if you’ve been, you’ll start working on ways to get back.

          And then poetry.  Dissatisfied with some of his earlier renderings of Stonehouse, he set to work on revising them, as he had earlier revised his translation of Han-shan; not only revising them, but printing them with only one or two poems per page, to give them “a little more room on the dance floor.”  The result is The Mountain Poems of Stonehouse (Copper Canyon, 2014), and the analogy I can think of is when you’ve been watching a movie and someone adjusts the projector to bring the image more perfectly into focus.  The new versions are just that more convincingly set to the rhythm of natural breath, so that this new edition is genuinely an act of rediscovery—as with the edition of Wei Ying-Wu, recovering an extraordinary poet from the dust of our forgetting.

          His final book, Finding Them Gone: Visiting China’s Poets of the Past (Copper Canyon, 2016) is a lovely combination of the two streams of his work, and the only one to which he has signed both his names.  It details a month-long (with one interruption) pilgrimage to the sites of the great Chinese poets—as far north as Beijing, as far west as Chengtu, as far south as Shangli, and ending as far east as a final visit to Tientai and the cave of Han-shan on Cold Mountain.  There is not only a fresh supply of stories to tell, but an anthology as well of the work of the writers whose sites he’s visiting, many of them new to English.  The whole book goes along on a current of absorbed delight, canny observation, and the quality of humane generosity that is the common pleasure of all Porter/Pine’s works and his long immersion in Chinese literature and thought.  These are all beautiful and civilized books, and Finding Them Gone is a grand, sweet note to go out on.

        P.S. 2019.  Well, not quite all the way out.  We should all be blessed with retirements as productive as Porter’s.  Since Finding Them Gone he has published, with Empty Bowl Press in Washington state (as Red Pine, the name he uses when translating), seven chapbooks worth anyone’s time and attention.  A Day In the Life: The Empty Bowl & Diamond Sutras, two texts from the Prajnaparamita literature, the latter being a revision of his earlier translation, published in 2001.  Cathay Revisited & Dancing With the Dead is his retranslation of the poems Ezra Pound published in Cathay, Pound’s book being, Porter says, “a rock through the glass window of Victorian verse,” with Porter’s versions being done not “to critique but to celebrate” the door that Pound threw open; “Dancing with the Dead” is his celebrated essay on the process of translation.  Trusting the Mind: Zen Epigrams is a fresh version of the Hsinhsinming, by Seng Ts’an, the sixth (maybe?) century monk.  Porter captures the terse, almost euphoric tone, as if it’s the simplest thing in the world—note that this simplicity took seventeen drafts to achieve.  Stonehouse's Mountain Poems is a reissue of these wonderful verses because, as we live in a barbarous world, the original edition of them has gone out of print.  (And we call ourselves a civilized society.  Humph.)  The latest three are Why Not Paradise, translations of two of the Pure Land Sutras, a translation of a Zen text little known in the West, Yung-chia’s Song of Enlightenment; and The Missionary Sutras, two of the first Buddhist texts to be imported into China, all of them with Porter’s usual fine and friendly introductions. As they say in the vulgar press, collect them all! 

         In Finding Them Gone part of one chapter details Porter’s failed attempts to locate the grave of the T’ang writer Liu Tsung-Yuan; the moment proved seminal, as it led Porter to the texts of of Liu’s poems, which he has now translated, along with a good helping of Liu’s prose: Written In Exile (Copper Canyon Press, 2019).  Here again, as with Wei Ying-Wu, he has brought across one of the really grand and accessible Chinese poets, who for some reason has been all but unknown to Westerners.  The central theme is that of so much Chinese verse:  Liu was one of those innumerable educated men who ran afoul of the Emperor on a political matter, and was banished to the hinterlands, sidelined by thousand of miles’ distance and prostrated by boredom, homesickness, loneliness and want of duties.  Shades of Ovid hover over him, but unlike Ovid, and all those poems of his sent with Romanian postage due to his own emperor, hoping to wheedle a ticket back, Liu seems to have some sense that the door is closed, and that it’s for him to make the best of things, but who is haunted with memories of a family and landscape left behind.  The feeling of estrangement—relegated to life among the unfamiliar ethnic minorities and the rough of rural poverty—is never made operatic, never melodramatized, but rendered with directness and quotidian detail that makes the verse all the more piercing.  The renderings are vivid and believable—Porter has brought the man across some twelve hundred years and helped him speak again.  He missed finding Liu’s grave but found the his voice.

      Addenda:  Road to Heaven was the inspiration for Edward A. Burger’s charming and moving documentary “Amongst White Clouds,” available on DVD (www.festivalmedia.org).  The best one-volume history of China that I’ve found is John Keay’s eloquent and readable China: A History (Basic Books, 2009).  For observant and up-to-date books on contemporary China from an economic, ecological and business point of view, read Postcards from Tomorrow Square: Reports from China, by James Fallows (Vintage, 2009) and What Does China Think? by Mark Leonard (Public Affairs/Perseus, 2008).  Of the nearly innumerable other editions of Lao Tzu in English, the great one is still Arthur Waley’s The Way and Its Power: A Study of the Tao Te Ching and Its Place in Chinese Thought (Grove Press). One of the great treasures of Aurel Stein’s archaeological digs at Dunhuang was a printed scroll of the Diamond Sutra, a copy dating to 868, and predating the Gutenberg Bible by several hundred years.  It’s now in the British Library, and The Diamond Sutra: The Story of the World’s Earliest Dated Printed Book, by Frances Wood and Mark Barnard (British Library, 2010) tells the story of its discovery; the scroll can be seen in its entirety on the Library website, www.bl.uk.  Peter Hopkirk’s Foreign Devils on the Silk Road (Hopkins, 1980) is a readable and charming book on those adventurous scavengers who brought us back the treasures of Dun-Huang.   And it’s worth mentioning that all of Pine’s books are handsomely designed and printed—a pleasure to the eye as well as the spirit.

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